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Aladdin at The Hackney Empire
Hackney Empire, 291 Mare St, London E8 1EJ
To January 6, 2019
Reviewed by Peter Lawler
The warmest of winter spiced mulled wine season’s greetings to you from Merry old Blighty where in this Great British kingdom of entertainment the almighty Pantomime, that merry peasant monarch of musical entertainment reigns supreme over the festive period, sprinkling campy joy over all it surveys, from the tiny but joy filled community theatres in the rural countryside, uniting villages together over a cup of cheer, to the big rafter-rumbling riches of grand, historical theatres like The Royal Theatre Stratford East (Sleeping Beauty until 12 January! Squwee!) thumping out great big smile generating sing-alongs to the masses. And for this expat, coming to the twilight of this great year of our Lord 2018, no better place to take in the people’s entertainment than the Hackney Empire, with their 20th Anniversary Production this year of Aladdin.
Popular people’s entertainment this may be, but more clearly than ever this year, writer Susie McKenna has aimed her razor sharp pen and razor sharp wit at the powers that be and the great big red and blue elephant in the room of 2018, Brexit. This Aladdin is set in the far away Eastern kingdom (the original Aladdin story is actually of disputed origin, possibly set in the Middle East or the Far East) of Ha-ka-ney (see what they did there?) has recently voted to leave the ‘Eastern Union’, a move that very few subjects of the kingdom seem happy about since it is, in the words of Dame Widow Twankey, played with masterful brilliance by Clive Rowe, ‘a stupid decision that’s made us all poorer.’
Likewise this is the closest I’ve seen a Pantomime come to presenting us with a dystopian post-Brexit future with Pantomime vet Tony Whittle and Michael Lin, playing respectively Sergeant Dumplin’ and Constable Ackee, garishly Lambeth walking around like a British bobby version of the Keystone Cops, whistling proclamations and hunting down a rascally lad like Aladdin for daring to even look upon the royal visage of the beautiful Princess Ling Mai.
And thanks to Mark Walters’ kaleidoscopic set design that is just the cleverest amount of kitschy camp and at the same time a delectably vibrant Christmas feast of colour, playfully utilising both urban and Eastern themes that feel more in step with the source material, like a Hamilton cast lecturing Mike Pence on all that is American values, this production visually reminds us of the strength of being a collection of diversity united under one purpose and embracing each other’s differences.
Gemma Sutton is heartwarmingly plucky as the eponymous hero, Tameka Empson is Charismatic and powerfully compelling as The Empress of Ha-Ka-Ney, and the aforementioned Michael Lin is a revelational fountain of talent tapping and bouncing around the boards. But one cannot help but feel grateful for the return of Dame Rowe this year, a homecoming after a three year spell away from The Empire. Tony Whittle and Kat B stoutly stepped into Rowe’s expansive shoes last year in Cinderella as twin dames, but the second Rowe took centre stage, it felt like we were being taken by the hand of an expert guide back into the glittery world of the Panto. Witty, powerful and unafraid to embarrass audience members, he elicits cheeky snorting guffaws and giggles and makes us wish that he were on stage more of the time.
As it is, McKenna has spun a tale that utilises the veteran Dame of Dames perfectly and provides the perfect night of subversive gender-bending holiday in this season of goodwill to our European neighbours and further abroad. Grab a glass of mulled wine and settle in for some Panto to all, and to all a good night!